Understanding Mel King’s ‘Chain of Change’

A letter to the late founder of the Rainbow Coalition and icon of Boston community activism

Pat Walker served as field director for Mel King’s historic 1983 campaign for mayor of Boston, when he became the first Black candidate to win a spot in the final election for mayor of the city. Walker was also editor of King’s 1981 book Chain of Change: Struggles for Black Community Development. Below is a letter he wrote to King following the veteran activist’s death on March 28 at age 94, offering his thoughts on the meaning of King’s idea of a “chain of change.” 


April 2, 2023

Hi Mel,

I and many people are missing you so much.

We are trying to understand what your life and work mean for us going forward.

I’m writing this letter to share my thoughts with you and with those whose lives you have touched so deeply during your time with us about the meaning of the book you wrote, Chain of Change.

Mel King in 2015. (Photo via Creative Commons/Flickr by Learn 2 Teach, Teach 2 Learn)

You might remember that we met in the spring of 1978 at one of your MIT breakfast club meetings where you invited Boston community activists to come together to brainstorm ways to improve Boston and our country. At the end of one discussion, I introduced myself as a member of South End Press, a progressive book publishing collective that was just starting up in the South End of Boston.

You invited me to come up to your office. When we got there, you went to the closet and pulled out a huge box of speeches, bills, proposals, letters, draft chapters, and notes. You asked me if I could help you transform all these materials into a book – to later be known as Chain of Change.

The book was published in 1981, just in time for the 1983 mayoral campaign.

What is the chain of change? Bear with me as I try to explain, some 40 years later, what I learned from you about the meaning of “chain of change.”

First, Braid Together.

Let’s start with the links and the chain and braiding them together.

Each of us is a link, and we can braid with others to form a chain.

The cover of your book captures this with a painting of Black people holding hands and braiding together to form a resilient and powerful chain.

As the subtitle states, Chain of Change is the story of the struggles for Black community development in Boston.

As you argue, these struggles, in turn, have provided a pathway (chain) for all oppressed people, for all people, to live better lives.

“My own vision of the city we can build together is based on a belief that people can and want to struggle through to a better place.”
—from Chain of Change by Mel King

Second, Build Strong Coalitions.

To forge this chain of unity and power, we need to link together to form strong coalitions.

“People must come together, moving out of their isolation, to challenge conditions which exploit us. Alliance, cooperation, coalition: those are the only paths to follow if we are going to make it into the next century.”
—from Chain of Change by Mel King

Three years after writing this, in the 1983 mayoral election, you sought to inspire the people of Boston with the vision of a Rainbow Coalition that could unite us in providing a better place for everyone.

“Oppression, whether as people of color or as women, as lesbians or as gay men, as workers or as tenants, as elderly or as youth, as handicapped or as undocumented workers, is possible only as long as we buy in to it. We will remain oppressed as long as we continue to fear those who put us down, inflicted upon us by those in control.”
—from Chain of Change by Mel King

The Rainbow was (is) meant to be a symbol of people of all colors building a more compassionate, inclusive, just, and free society.

The power to overcome oppression of all kinds comes through unity.

Third, Institutionalize Power.

The power that comes through our braiding together needs to be continually strengthened and embedded in our families, our communities, our neighborhoods, our workplaces, and our political institutions.

Mel, you especially emphasized the importance of registering, voting for, and electing progressive candidates who could help to braid together and strengthen the links in the chain of change.

That’s why you ran for School Committee, Legislature, mayor, and the Congress.

“If we succeed in revising our innermost relationships with the family, and then with the groups which form our community, we will set off an ever widening chain reaction of change.”
—from Chain of Change by Mel King

Fourth, Embrace Shared Values.

We can build a better city, country, and world by embracing a shared set of values. In my mind, the community we envision, pieces of which we have been building for years, will be constructed around these values:

Sharing: people freely offering to each other what they have, knowing that they will be able to do more, in the end, and to have more for everyone, if resources and skills are pooled . . .

Compassion: people empathizing with each other, knowing that so long as one person is hungry or enslaved or oppressed, we are all diminished . . .

Creativity: people using their skills and talents fully, to solve problems rather than to make money to beat someone else out . . .

Respect: people recognizing the value of other people and our other natural resources.

“We envision a city in which many of us are willing to make these changes as individuals, family members and as community participants. We will build a city based on our values.”
—from Chain of Change by Mel King

So, Mel, I’m a little nervous whether I’ve been able to explain what “chain of change” means to you. I hope I’ve gotten close.

“The chain of change is still being forged.”
—from Chain of Change by Mel King

Love to you, Mel, for being such a big link in the Boston chain of change.

Thank you for your love and leadership.

Thank you in these divisive times for showing us the way forward.

“Thoughts On a Dream Deferred

the dream is in the process
and not the outcome
it is found in the struggle
for peace
and not in achieving it
in the working of the artist
and not in the creation
in the sun’s rays
and not the sun
in the belief that we can

—Mel King
11:58 p.m.”
—from Chain of Change by Mel King

Thank you for helping us to believe that we can!

Meet the Author
Pat Walker was field director for Mel King’s 1983 campaign for mayor of Boston.